What can I do about my friend’s violent niece?

Kate Holmquist answers personal questions from two readers


This column is all about you and we want to hear more. Send me your sex, relationship and work dilemmas and get sound advice from our experts.

Email your questions to tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com or contact Kate on Twitter @kateholmquist.

Q A friend of mine has a 17-year-old niece who is out of control and may be physically abusing her mother (my friend’s sister-in-law). The niece seems to control her mother and siblings and does whatever she wants . She gets violent with her brothers (kicking and punching), seems to be angry all the time, and has been caught bringing strange men into people’s homes when she is meant to be baby-sitting their children. It’s unclear whether drugs and alcohol are involved.

My friend feels very conflicted about what to do. The father is absent, and my friend’s husband (the niece’s uncle) does not want to get involved, but this young woman is on a road to nowhere and the sister-in-law is becoming increasingly detached. No one in my friend’s husband’s family seems willing to talk about it or bring it up with the girl’s mother .

A Although we may be more accustomed to accounts of teenage boys being disruptive and angry at home, there is anecdotal evidence that this behaviour is increasing in adolescent girls, says psychotherapist Teresa Bergin.

Mood swings, increased arguments and rebellious behaviour are typical of teens as they move towards independence, but, says Bergin, “this girl’s behaviour goes way beyond what one would generally expect, and as physical violence is suspected, that is very serious indeed”.

Why is she so clearly distressed? “Teenage girls are under unprecedented pressure with regard to dress, sexual behaviour and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and this kind of angry behaviour can often signal that they themselves are under attack within their peer group or from others.”

Could she be reacting to her father’s absence? “Our anger can be the expression of other undisclosed confused feelings and emotions which may not be within our immediate awareness,” says Bergin.

Sometimes teenage violence is an expression of an effort to gain control in the family. If the girl’s mother is “increasingly detached”, is the family in disarray and is this young woman reacting to that? Is she lonely and isolated with no one to confide in? “Of particular concern is this girl’s behaviour when she is baby-sitting: she is now extremely vulnerable and at risk. It could be that this highly inappropriate behaviour is an unconscious cry for help,” Bergin warns.

Your friend should act now, first by talking frankly with the mother. She needs to be supported to take charge, and establish rules and consequences for the teenager’s behaviour, making it clear that it will no longer be tolerated.

It sounds like this might be very difficult for her to manage on her own, but if there are no sanctions, the behaviour will continue or escalate. Your niece needs counselling to uncover what’s going on and why. And if her mother feels that she or the other children are in physical danger, she needs to seek help immediately.

Q I am in my late 40s and was diagnosed with Asperger ’s syndrome 10 years ago. I lived most of my life on my farm being helped by my dad and mother, rarely socialising. I managed to go to college but got sick and came home again to help on the farm.

The only woman I was close to was a penpal, but she turned out to be a second cousin, and soon after she came to Ireland she let go of me. Back then, meeting a woman was considered by me to be something you do when you buy something from her in a shop.

I gave up farming and went to Dublin where I joined two support groups – one for Asperger’s and one for mental health. The few women in them are either married or bond closely among themselves or with men that they already know well. But they only say hello to me. If I go on like this, I’ll probably never get married.

A Don’t let past experiences affect your confidence. You are older and wiser now, advises Michael Ryan, a psychotherapist who works with many people, including those with Asperger’s. Here are some practical suggestions for starting a relationship with a woman, as opposed to meeting one in a shop.

Broaden your horizons beyond the support groups (which you should continue) and consider joining a social group, such as Toastmasters, or a hobby group. Try volunteering – you will help others and meet other volunteers.

Put in an effort when a woman says “hello”, and start a conversation about things you have in common. This isn’t always straightforward for people with Asperger’s. Don’t come across too strongly with a viewpoint if the other person disagrees.

If you join a club that involves some element of competition, be aware that sometimes people with Asperger’s have difficulty accepting a loss. Lose with dignity, and congratulate the winners.

Make an effort with personal appearance and hygiene, and keep fit and healthy. You could consider joining a professional dating agency that would try to match you with someone who understands and accepts you without judgment.

Email your questions to tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com or contact Kate on Twitter @kateholmquist. Selected entries will be published on an anonymous basis only. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into

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